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Australia is New Zealand without a social conscience: in praise of AC/DC

Steve Braunias reviews a new biography of Malcolm Young, the mastermind behind Australian rockers AC/DC.

Let us now consider “Highway to Hell”. AC/DC at the sharpest edge of their dagger, the heaviest swing of their club – all the band’s music was some kind of weapon, guns, cannon, nuclear blasts, things that go boom, a total commitment to the happy violence of hard rock. The song was recorded in 1979. Bon Scott had six months to live. He choked on his vomit outside a mate’s house, a GC’s death, at 33. He might never have done anything to surpass “Highway To Hell” but who has? It’s an incredible vocal performance, excellent screeching with expert timing, knowing precisely when to come in and when to stfu. There was never anything mock about his voice. He meant every boozy and carnal delight, every phrase was a pleasure, and he had the words to go with it. He was a Dylan of the jackeroos.

Living easy, living free
Season ticket on a one-way ride…

Going down, party time
My friends are gonna be there too.

Killer line, the one about friends. AC/DC were rock as mateship, land of the slap on the back and a chaser at breakfast, engines, smoke, rooting. They were bogan incarnate. Australia has always existed as New Zealand without a social conscience; we call it West Island, but we ought to call it Westie Island. “Highway to Hell” is our joint national anthem:

Asking nothing, leave me be
Taking everything in my stride...

No stop signs, speed limit
Nobody's gonna slow me down.

The song was produced by Mutt Lange. He was king of meathead rawk and knew his way around the volume button turned to 11. But “Highway to Hell” operates as art, too, and all the credit is due to the band, to Bon Scott’s screeching manifestos, and to the guitaring of the Young brothers, rock’s greatest tall dwarves. Angus played lead, Malcolm played noise. There’s no way the song is going to fail after an opening riff as exquisite as that but the miracle is that it gets better as it goes along. It wasn’t straight-ahead rock full stop. It was straight-ahead rock with dainty, careful, innately pursued melodies, and it’s there in Scott’s vocal and in the work of the band’s quiet mastermind, Malcolm Young, a Brian Wilson conducting a bogan orchestra.

The point is made clear in the title and pretty much every page of Jeff Apter’s Malcolm Young: The Man Who Made AC/DC. It’s not a great book and there’s nowt new and it doesn’t improve on the definitive Behind The Music documentary on YouTube. But it pays Young the respect he’s due. He came to a sad end. He moved into a dementia care unit in 2015 and died two years later. He was 64.

Apter’s portrait is distant. There are no intimate interviews with friends and family. It maybe doesn’t matter too much; Young seems like a good, decent, uncomplicated guy, a family man, a shrewd operator, a drunk who got dry, a hard worker. He was an immigrant. His family left Glasgow for Sydney on the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme and were put up at the Villawood Migrant Hostel. They found a brick house in Burwood. Visitors couldn’t understand their language; they didn’t speak English, they spoke Scots.

Young had one other job after he left school at 15, on the machinery floor of a lingerie factory in Sydney. The rest of his career was AC/DC. Apter is at his best writing about the band’s early days - the pub circuit in Sydney, playing at the Melbourne Festival with Split Enz, their first trip to the UK when Melody Maker described them as “outback rednecks”. Well, you know. Fair to say the book is free of Woke. “Listen, Mal,” Bon Scott tells Young after a gig. “There’s a couple of girls. One’s pretty ugly, the other’s pretty cute, but she’s huge – and they’ve offered to make us dinner.” Sex and food, good times.

Apter is also good at identifying the vital influences on the sound inside Young’s head. Malcolm went along with Angus to see The Beatles in Sydney in 1964. “I tended to pick up on the chords,” he said, “the whole picture around the guitars.” Strange to think of a small teenage boy experiencing the screaming height of Beatlemania and studying the finer tunings, the sonic possibilities. Later, he was a huge fan of the early solo albums by Elton John and Paul McCartney. Again, a course in musical appreciation, with an ear for melody and timing. Young’s hard rock was thought out with a soft rock philosophy, something beautifully understood by Michael Hann, in his obituary in the Guardian: “What made AC/DC great has always been restraint...In the studio at least, Malcolm Young favoured quietness: he played with his amps turned down, but with the mics extremely close. That’s why, on the great AC/DC albums, you hear not just the chords of the riffs, but their very texture, their burnished, rounded sound.”

The sharpest edges of “Highway to Hell” are in the song’s quietness, in the spaces around that opening riff, and then the play of assault and retreat as Young develops the whole picture around the guitars.

Apter tells a good story about AC/DC being inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame in 2003. They performed two songs. They had to wait an age, though, for a bore to stfu: Edge from U2 took the stage to make a speech in honour of the late Joe Strummer. It went on. It went on and on. It went on and on and on: “We were at the side of the stage, waiting, getting madder and madder,” Young said. “When they said to go, we ripped the place apart.” They played “Highway to Hell.”

Hey Satan, paid my dues
Playing in a rocking band.

Malcolm Young: The Man Who Made AC/DC by Jeff Apter (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

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